Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Do you remember that time Hannibal Buress dropped in on Moogfest and stole the whole weekend?

at Motorco
hannibalburess_photoby_capblackard.jpg (806×518)
building a Moog

with Flylo

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Good bread was sufficient unto itself, at any hour of the day; it needed no accompaniment, not even butter."  -- Steven Laurence Kaplan, Good Bread is Back

Monday, April 24, 2017

Working Side by Side With Latinos

This is kind of a funny story.  I was working at Ninth Street Bakery in the Fall of 2009.  I was mixing bread and doing the oven work, baking off the loaves.  And one day, when baking the challah, I forgot to set my timer correctly, and the loaves came out 10 minutes too dark.  And the customer refused the loaves and requested replacements, asap.  So after a 10 hour baking day that started at 4:30am, I drove back from Carrboro to Durham to mix another batch.  Around 7pm, the dough was ready to shape.  Except I had never formed round challah before (it was Rosh Hashana time, when round challahs are traditionally made).  I asked Antonia, one of the bread formers (she knew how to make all the dough shapes), to help me.  Antonia, a native of Honduras, was helping me, an East Coast Jew, make challah for Rosh Hashana.  The irony was not lost on me.  The loaves were made and baked off for the customer.  But the image of standing there while Antonia instructed me stuck in my mind to this day.

President Trump seems to find the mere existence of Latinos, legal or otherwise, to be problematic.  If he knew who is on the job sites of America, or if he had worked side by side with Latinos, I wonder if he would gain an appreciation for their work ethic and skills.  As is typical for many restaurants, the Latino workers at the Bakery, all eight of them, are some of the hardest working and reliable employees I have.  To denigrate them rather than celebrate them is misguided and racist.

We are working with El Futuro to give away free cookies and coffees to patients who meet certain treatment goals.  This is a small and seemingly insignificant way to support the Latino community in Durham, but I think when Latino families come into the Bakery, it reminds me that all are welcome and that we (and by we I mean the service industry) have a collective responsibility to serve every race and income class.  I hope we can do more in the future.

More here on immigrants in restaurant kitchens: https://lifeandthyme.com/video/migrant-kitchen-ep1-chirmol/

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Take them by the hand

We had two new pastry cooks come on in February and our Assistant Manager Jacob and I have been hard at working training them.  The longer I've owned the Bakery (it's been about three-and-a-half years), the more I've come to value training.  It's said that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would teach his players on the first day of camp the best way to tie their shoes so they would never go untied in the middle of a game.  And that is precisely the point, that a successful Bakery, like most businesses, concentrates on the details and the thousands of micro-adjustments that add up to a perfect loaf.

Another great example is one from master baker Jeffrey Hamelman.  He recounts a tale of mixing Irish Soda Bread in Dublin in a converted pig trough.  At dawn the buttermilk would splash in and he would then be "up to his elbows" mixing the dough with the owner perched over his shoulder telling him to mix it more gently, with a light hand, so that the pastry would be soft and flaky instead of dense and hard.  Many days, I am like that owner, on the floor, showing our employees the best way to clean an 80 quart mixing bowl or to organize the walkin or how to properly cream butter.  It is highly repetitive work, but also rewarding.  When I can move on to another task and trust that recipes will be executed to (near) perfection, it is enormously satisfying and the Bakery is stronger for it.

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Bake Bread?

I sometimes get asked how long does it take to learn to bake bread.  

3 weeks to learn the basics.

3 months to gain a proficiency.  

5 years to gain mastery.  

But the learning never stops.   I learn something new about bread every week.   It is like a chrysalis endlessly unfolding or like a snowflake fractal growing at the cusp of its edge.  It is periodically frustrating, but it always brings me back with renewed interest.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Mural

Ninth Street Bakery recently invested in a new mural above our Downtown space.  I think it really brightens it up, and evokes our from-scratch mentality.  Our organic flour is milled locally at Lindley Mills in Graham, NC, so you know that our flour has been milled from whole grain and used within about two weeks!  That is the main difference between our product and factory-made supermarket products.  No preservatives, no additives, ever.

Before and After

Scott Nurkin, owner of The Mural Shop, is a one-man business.  He saw this project through from start to finish, initially brought in for the job by Julie Cohoon from Center Studio Architecture.  I got to speak with Scott on tape for a little bit to learn more about him and his muraling work.

What was your background in muraling and how did you get started?

I started at UNC in the Painting and Drawing program and got my BFA there.  As soon as I graduated, there was a muralist named Michael Brown who lived in Carrboro who was looking for an apprentice.

I apprenticed for him for 3 years, taking that job right out of school, not thinking I would stick with muraling forever. I spent the summer working for him, then I begged him to work full time which I did for three years, then after three years we amicably parted ways and I struck out on my own.

At the same time I was touring with a band (Birds of Avalon), and it afforded me to make some money and then head out on the road for months at a time.  I did that from 2003 till 2008.  Then the economy tanked, the band slowed down, so I had to figure out what to do next and I decided to commit to muraling full time.

I built a website, and slugged it out from 2008 to 2013, taking any job, whether it be hand-painting signs in peoples' garages or that kind of thing.  I was slowly building up a clientele and a portfolio and the last couple of years it has been pretty good.  For some reason the mural industry is booming right now, and it probably has something to do with street art becoming really popular, with graffiti writers turning into rock stars on social media....so by 2017 the business has been good to me.

How do you incorporate the creative into your commercial jobs?

I try to use my talent to understand what a client wants and shape that direction versus being like, "This is my one style."  I think my style comes out in everything I do though - for instance with Ninth Street, there is a tie in to wheat and breadmaking so that worked out nicely but another example for a job I was recently doing in South Carolina - there is a mixed use space there on top of an industrial cotton mill from the 1800s so all the art references cotton ginning -- I kind of pride myself on using my skills as an artist and what I like and what I reference and incorporating it into what clients want. I use my forces to steer the client, but ultimately it is the client's vision.

What was the process and vision for this project at Ninth Street Bakery?

So this one started a year ago.  The original concept was a wheat tie-in, and I took that idea and ran with it.  It moved from a single stem of wheat to a field of wheat given the linearity of the space and I thought something colorful and impactful would suit the space. So the idea was to do a huge impact right away so that as soon as you turn the corner, you can't help but go, "Whoa, what is that?"  Then there was the decision of doing realistic wheat versus some kind of cartoonish wheat and we ultimately did the realistic wheat because I thought it would be taken more seriously that way.

Luckily this one was so high up that I had a lift and the lift affords me the ability to move really fast up and over the space so I can touch the wall all across the several hundred square feet I had to work -- versus using a ladder where it's a lengthy process of gridding the image out and make sure all the lines are going exactly up and down, stepping back, etcetera.  So I didn't have to grid this one - it was a lot of using the eye on the stem work so that it looked balanced and fit the space and layering the color in.  I also used aerosol on this one which is not something I typically use a lot but I loved it, and I loved the way it responded to my vision of the piece.

So what's next for Scott Nurkin and The Mural Shop?

There is more work here [we are in discussion on a mural on the interior of the Bakery], and there is a project in Raleigh - an inclusionary project -- "Welcome to Raleigh, Y'all" in 16 different languages, to counter some of the political movements that the clients feel are not correct in our State. This is going up near Downtown Raleigh.

After that, there is more work at the cotton mill in South Carolina, as well as some big work for some small towns in North Carolina, Sanford and Carthage, so a lot is coming up.  In terms of expanding what I do, I just spoke with some people about hiring on some extra help, mostly office manager and backoffice help, so hopefully by 2018 we'll have some more employees and the company will have expanded.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Parking Downtown

In just a month since the new parking meters have gone in Downtown to increase revenue for the City, we have seen weekday foot traffic to the Cafe decrease an estimated 10-20%.  Apparently, just like the seniors affected in this article, there exists a whole class of people who would probably rather stay away from Downtown rather than pay a meter fee.  Before the meters, on-street parking was hard to come by, but not impossible. I imagine the folks that would rove around looking for a spot are now preferring to stay away rather than pay or go into a parking deck.  I just hope that there is a learning curve here and that folks slowly learn to use meters and start coming back.  I would hate for something like parking meters to impede the growth of the City.

I wonder if the revenue gained by the City will outstrip the daytime business lost for Downtown businesses like the Bakery.  What is the breakeven point?  Fact is that there are so many places for folks to shop nowadays that we still need to give incentives to come Downtown.  Just imagine what would happen if Southpoint Mall starting charging shoppers for parking to try to increase revenue?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pay Scale

I look at our pay scale at Ninth Street and continually hope to add on new customers because with new wholesale customers, we can pay our employees more. My goal is that everyone in skilled baking or cafe positions make $14.00/hr. We are closer to that now then when I took over the Bakery in 2013. But I still look at the disparity in pay across industries and wonder how it is that some folks can make more than three times what others make and we are all working full time.

This was brought into high relief for me when I worked for Duke for a short time before owning the Bakery. I worked in a Division with physician leaders and spoke with one about how entry level physician pay at a community clinic might be $150K, which was more than three times what I was making as a research analyst (and I thought I was doing quite well!). It makes sense that physicians should be paid more than analysts, but for that multiplier to be 3x made me think that it's strange that we pay the same price for goods and services. If we go out for hamburgers, we might pay the same price, but for the physician, that hamburger is effectively a third as expensive (it puts one third the dent in his disposable income).

Without a robust safety net for folks on the bottom of the stratification ladder, it makes no sense to me that pay should be as stratified as it is. I understand we exist in a free market where supply meets demand, but for the economics to dictate that some jobs to pay so little, while other pay so much is indefensible. I would love for the food service living wage to be $42.00/hr instead of $14.00, but the economics of this business do not allow for that. Until we have a redistribution of income and universal access to basic services such as higher education, technical training, health care, transportation, and so forth, there is no way we can live guilt-free in a society obsessed with foodie-ism, fancy beers, and Snapchat.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Death of the Celebrity Chef

It may be that I am writing on a topic already long gone past, but the celebrity chef is dead.

I don't mean the Emerils, the Fieris, but instead the Boweins, the Changs, the Rickers. Around 2011, when the celebrity hipster chef was in full force, it was this beautiful combination of ethnic food and English-speaking, classically trained chefs who could translate Asian (or otherwise) food for a Caucasian palate. I was completely obsessed, buying the Momofuku Cookbook, the Mission Chinese Cookbook, among others. They were like rock stars on Vice TV's Munchies channel or on the pages of Lucky Peach. It was so enchanting.

And now, those restaurants have lost their charm, and perhaps their purpose. On a recent and much-planned culinary trip to New York, I got to encounter the actual restaurants that made the foodie movement of the 2010s, and the results were unimpressive and underwhelming. The dishes, now having been served the same way for years, have lost their appeal, urgency, or novelty. The pork buns at Momofuku Ssam were whatever. The restaurant was less than a quarter full, which was disappointing in itself when I had always imagined it with a line down the block. Even the newer upstarts, like Black Seed Bagels (of the Mile End Deli restaurant group), a Jewish ethnic rediscovery project, was downright bad. The bagels were underrisen and borderline inedible - it was like eating roughage. The trip perfectly mapped our gastronomical moment of having gone from foodie-ism to fatigue. The celebrity chef is no longer in the building, he or she is on Snapchat.

My resolution from the trip was that for future food pilgrimages, I would skip the celebrity chefs, the contrived food that was backed by a good PR team, and instead head for authentic restaurants only. My best meal all trip might have been a $3.00 foil-wrapped jalapeno and cheese tamale that came out of a steam basket underneath a bar at 2AM in a dive in Leffert's Gardens.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Twilight

Looking ahead to what 2017 may hold, I'm concerned that Durham and the nation are in a twilight zone.  Not the Twilight Zone, but a twilight zone where investment and families that have planted themselves in Durham (making it one of the fastest growing municipalities in the nation) are showing a "wait-and-see" attitude after the election in one of the bluest counties in North Carolina.  Our flickering twilight refers to how we are largely going along "business as usual" while we wait for Trump to take office.  Restaurants are still filled, and the Bakery's business could not be better.  We are servicing new customers, new restaurants, and showing growth with existing wholesale customers.  But the anxiety remains that should Trump open the floodgates on U.S. debt through tax cuts (especially for the 1%) or by making war, US finances may quickly spiral and all the consumer confidence (and jobs) gained post-2008 may be lost.